“Do not forsake me, oh my Darlin,” on this our wedding day,” who didn’t know the first verse of that song from the radio? A massive hit from the 1952 movie “High Noon,” performed by everybody’s favorite singing cowboy, Tex Ritter.
In 1957, I was eight years old, and on some Saturday nights, I got to tag along with my father to the “Cowtown Hoedown,” a popular live country music show performed at the Majestic Theater in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. My father was the fiddle player in the house stage band, so I was somewhat musical royalty, at least for a kid.
Most of the major and minor country stars played Fort Worth and Dallas as much as they did Nashville, and I was fortunate to have seen many of them at this show. One, in particular, made a lasting impression on my young self.
I was sitting on a stool backstage before the show, talking to a few kids; who, like me, got to attend the show with their fathers.
My father came over and asked me to follow him. We walked behind the back curtain and stopped at a stage-level dressing room. There in the doorway stood a big fellow in a sequined cowboy suit and a 30 gallon Stetson. I knew who he was; that is Tex Ritter, the movie star and cowboy singer. My father introduced me, and I shook hands with Tex. I was floored, shocked, and couldn’t speak for a few minutes. What kid gets to meet a singing cowboy movie star in Fort Worth, Texas? I guess that would be me.
Tex asked my name and then told me he had a son the same age as me. We talked baseball and cowboy movies for a bit, then he handed me a one-dollar bill and asked if I would go to the concession stand and buy him a package of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. So I took the buck and took off down the service hallway to the front of the theater. I knew all the shortcuts and hidey holes from my vast exploration of the old theater during the shows.
I knew nothing of the brands and flavors, not being a gum chewer, but the words Juicy Fruit made my mouth water. Not having much money, what change I did get from selling pop bottles went to Bubble Gum Baseball Cards, not fancy chewing gums.
I purchased the pack of gum for five cents. Then, gripping the change tightly in my sweating little hand, I skedaddled back to Tex’s dressing room. He was signing autographs but stopped and thanked me for the favor. He then gave me two quarters for my services and disappeared into his dressing room for a moment. He handed me an autographed 8×10 photograph of him playing the guitar and singing to the doggies when he returned. I was in country and western music heaven. He also gave me a piece of Juicy Fruit, which I popped into my mouth and began chewing, just like Tex.
Juicy Fruit became my favorite gum, and now, whenever I see a pack or smell that distinct aroma as someone is unwrapping a piece, I remember the night I shared a chew with Tex Ritter.
I’m a 50s kid. That means I was born in 1949 at Saint Josephs Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in the lean and mean Eisenhower years. My hometown was different back then, as most of our hometowns are today. But, change is inevitable, and it happens at the oddest times; while we sleep or mow our lawn. Progress is sneaky.
First, it’s a few new buildings downtown, then a slick freeway cutting through quiet neighborhoods, and maybe a landmark building demolished to make way for a new hospital. Then, out of nowhere, a train full of people from the West or the East is arriving, and the pilgrims try to make it “not so Texas.” It’s a gradual thing, and most of us are too occupied or young to notice until it bites us in the rear.
My grandfather was old-school Fort Worth from the late 1800s, a cow-puncher who rode the cattle drives and sang cowboy songs to the little doggies. He loved his city to a fault. The word “Dallas” was not to be spoken in his home or his presence. Violaters usually got punched or asked to leave. The old man was a tough Texan and a supporter of Amon Carter, the larger-than-life businessman that put Fort Worth on the map and started the rivalry between the two cities.
In the 1950s, if you asked Fort Worth residents what they thought of Dallas, they would most likely tell you it’s a high-on-the-hog-East coast-wanna be-big-shot rich-bitch city. We didn’t sugarcoat it. That rivalry was always just under the surface.
In October, Dallas has the “State Fair of Texas,” and Fort Worth has the “Fat Stock Show” in February. I didn’t attend the State Fair until I was ten years old, and even then, it was in disguise, and after dark, it was to the fair and then back home, hoping no one in our neighborhood noticed we had crossed enemy lines. Unfortunately, I let my secret visit slip around my buddies, and they banned me from playing cowboys and Indians for a week. Even us kids were tough on each other.
Three things got us kids excited; Christmastime in downtown Fort Worth, Toyland at Leonard Brothers Department Store, and The Fat Stock Show. But, unfortunately for us, the rest of the year was uneventful and boring. Summer was pickup baseball games and Popeye cartoons.
60 years ago, the winters in Texas were colder and more miserable. February was the month we froze our little gimlet asses off, and of course, that is the Stock Show month. Wrapped up in our Roy Rogers flannel pajamas and all the clothes we owned, we kids made the best of it as we visited the midway, the cattle barns, and animal competitions. The rodeo was for the real cowboys, and it was too expensive; the free ticket from our grade school only went so far. We were kids and had not a penny to our name. It wasn’t the flashy affair that Dallas put on, but it was ours, and we loved it. I still have a round metal pin I got at the Stock Show, a lovely picture of Aunt Jemimah promoting her flour, something that would get me canceled, or worse today. I’ve often thought of wearing it to the grocery store to see the reaction. Maybe not.
For those of us who were born and grew up there, Fort Worth, Texas, is where the west begins, and Dallas is where the East peters out. Nothing has changed.
I am posting a picture of the legendary Texas western swing band, The Light Crust Doughboys, in memory of National Country Music Day. Top L to R; Jerry Elliot and Bill Simmons, bottom L to R; Smokey Montgomery, Johnny Strawn ( my father) and Jim Boyd.
As a small child growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, these men were part of my life until I helped carry some of them to their final rest. Texas, country music, and I are better because of them.
“We got ourselves into so much trouble that our Mothers would take shifts whooping everyone’s butt just to give the other moms spanking arm a break.” It was 1956, and that’s how it was for my neighborhood pals and me.
Summer was our best and our worst season because there was more playtime outside, increasing the opportunity to get ourselves into predicaments that never ended well. Our moms didn’t buy into that “Dr. Spock crap.” I would bet that none of the moms in my neighborhood ever heard of that weirdo. There was no negotiating out of corporal punishment, and trophies were non-existent.
My neighbor, Mr. Mister, was the neighborhood scientist and inventor; our very own Mr. Wizard. Not the dweeb on television, but a real-life mad scientist with a movie star wife.
We kids would spend our weekends sitting underneath his Mimosa tree, watching him build his oddball inventions in his garage that doubled as his laboratory. Looking back, he was more a “mad scientist” than an inventor. The only thing missing was the Frankenstein monster lumbering out of his garage.
Mrs. Mister, his Hollywood-looking wife, would keep a steady supply of cold Kool-Aid and cookies flowing. She closely resembled the movie star Jane Mansfield but could bake a cookie-like Betty Crocker. Always with a frosty martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she was the dream Mom none of us had. No butt whooping’s around the Mister household, no matter what we said or did. So we were free to be our feral selves.
Some of Mr. Misters’ inventions were downright crazy. My two favorites were his motorized and drivable charcoal griller and the half-size rocket that took Fred and Ginger, his wife’s twin poodles, into the stratosphere, returning the two. “Dog-o-nauts” small space capsule safely to earth; via an Army surplus parachute.
After the spectacular launch, which also torched the Misters’ back yard and part of their garage, Mr. Mister was paid a visit by the F.B.I. and the Air Force. Who in the world knew it was a national security violation to build and launch a solid-fuel rocket from your backyard?
That incident caused Mrs. Mister to suffer a minor breakdown, so no more using the pooches.
As in most neighborhoods, there are disagreements with other groups of kids. A gang of mean and nasty punks lived across the railroad tracks from us. They were older, bigger, and made our lives miserable. We called them “The Hard Guy’s.” A few of them carried switch-blade knives that had been smuggled in from Mexico. We all attended the same elementary school and suffered their daily attacks during the school year; now, they were sneaking into our neighborhood, cutting our bicycle tires with their switchblades, egging our houses, and stealing our goodies. So we devised a plan to get even, and of course, it involved our hero and mentor, Mr. Mister.
Mr. Mister said that he had experienced a similar gang of kids growing up in East Los Angeles. So he suggested a way to retaliate using every kid’s favorite firecracker, “Cherry Bombs,” delivered by an ancient invention called the catapult. Wow! what a guy. With his help, we built a small wagon-mounted catapult in a few hours. It was a beaut. He donated a shoebox full of the little bombs for the cause.
The first Cherry Bomb we launched from the weapon went 50 ft and exploded; not enough weight. So Georgie suggested putting a Cherry Bomb inside a sidewalk biscuit, like the ones his sister and her friends make.
For the folks that didn’t grow up in the 50s, the “sidewalk biscuit” is purely a kid invention native to Texas. It’s made by putting a large glob of dough on a red-hot 250-degree sidewalk and letting the heat do the rest.
We stuffed a Cherry Bomb into a fist-size glob of dough and placed it on my front sidewalk. Within an hour, we had our weapon of mass destruction. The hot concrete produced a biscuit-bomb the size of a grapefruit with a beautiful golden crust. Georgie tried to eat one and chipped a tooth.
The test shoot was a success; the biscuit bomb flew about 100 yards and exploded as it hit the ground; perfect. We were ready for revenge. Mr. Mister beamed like a proud Father.
Word in the neighborhood was that Chucky, the leader of the “Hard Guys,” was having a backyard birthday party, and his gang of hoodlums and their families would be attending. Unfortunately, we also learned that a few of our neighborhood girls would be there, which made them traitors to the cause in our minds. We tried to warn them without revealing our battle plan, but, oh well, they will be sorry when the crap hits the fan.
At dusk, our small group of commandos, wearing our best Army surplus helmets and packs, pushed the catapult to the edge of the railroad tracks. The party was in full gear, Elvis was on the record player, parents were dancing, kids were yelling, and a clown was making balloon animals; we could smell the hamburgers cooking, reminding us that it was supper time.
Skipper, our math wiz-kid, calculated the trajectory and distance with his father’s slide rule. Georgie loaded the “Biscuit Bomb” into the catapult pouch and then pulled a can of Ronson lighter fluid from his pack and doused the weapon. Countdown from five to one, I lit the fuse and the soaked bomb and pulled the release lever.
The “Flying Burning Biscuit Bomb” sailed high and long, leaving a trail of black smoke and flames as it soared toward its target. We gasped in awe at the beauty of our weapon.
The first biscuit bomb bounced once, landed on the charcoal grill, and exploded. The adults sitting nearby were coated in charcoal-broiled hamburger patties, weenies, and biscuit chunks. A piece of hot charcoal set Chucky’s mom’s beehive hair-do on fire, and his father wasted two cold Schlitz beers dousing the flaming mess.
The second “biscuit bomb” blew up “Squiggles The Clown’s” prize table, sending balloon animals, Captian Kangeroo penny-whistles, and birthday cupcakes in all directions. It was pure pandemonium at the Chucky place.
The third bomb was a dud. We were in the process of loading a fourth when the “Hard Guys” came running towards us, followed by their fathers. We had no plan of retreat, no “plan B.” So we did what any commando would do; dropped our gear and ran like hell towards Mr. Mister’s back fence. Reaching the fence, we vaulted into the backyard and to safety.
Mr. Mister knew the attack was a bust, and he gathered us around the Mimosa tree. Mrs. Mister gave us a cold glass of Kool-Aid to calm us.
The “Hard Guys” and their fathers stood at the back fence yelling obscenities. Naturally, this didn’t go over well with Mr. Mister, so he walked to the back fence and addressed the lynch mob.
Mr. Mister didn’t sound like himself. His voice was deep and foreboding as he spoke to the group. ” Millard Mister here, Colonel, U.S. Air Force, this is my wife, Captain Jane Mister, U.S. Air Force, is there a problem here gentlemen?” The fathers jerked to attention, eyes forward. This sounded serious.
Chuckies father explained the scenario. Mr. Mister replied, ” I am aware of the operation and why it took place.” He then explained to the fathers all the havoc their sons were creating in our neighborhood. The gang of hoodlums realizing the jig was up, took off running for their homes, angry fathers right behind them. We had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Mr. Mister turned, gave us a salute, and said, “job well done men.” Three kids stood as tall as nature would allow and returned his salute.
The rest of the summer was great for us, and Mr. Mister invented the first Air-conditioned Riding Lawnmower.
Us Texans can be braggarts, pompous asses, and supercilious zealots about our state, history, and traditions. To us, “everything is bigger” in Texas. I won’t deny this because it happens to be true.
We are divinely blessed with the big sky country, enormous cattle ranches larger than most states, the vast rolling prairies, Big Tex and the State Fair, The Fort Worth Fat Stock Show, the Big Bend National Park, big-assed rodeos, colossal oil and gas fields, big cattle with massive horns, tall longneck beers, fat fluffy biscuits, and my favorite, “big hair.” I happen to have first-hand knowledge of the big hair phenomenon. It happened in our household.
In 1956, an artistically inclined Fort Worth beautician that happened to be my uncle figured out he could take a woman’s healthy, shining long hair and transform it into a towering monument of femininity. Teasing, ratting, poking, backcombing, and then mold the mass into a two-foot mountain of tortured follicles. To keep the sculpture in place required a minimum of one or more 16-ounce cans of flammable cancer-causing lacquer-based hair spray that was known to explode when in the vicinity of an open flame. Who knew a hair-do could be so dangerous.
It was a winning combo for the beauty shops. Women had to visit their beauticians to achieve their “big hair” style, and the shop sold the spray to hold the sculpture in place. It was a gold mine, and within six months, every beautician in Fort Worth had doubled their business and was driving a Frank Kent Cadillac. The good times were rolling in, and Texas women would never look the same.
My hair-fixin uncle entered a hairstyle show in Dallas and needed a model. My mother, ever the good sister, volunteered for the job, and off the two went. But, of course, Dallas was the forbidden zone for us, Fort Worth-ians, so it was a shock to the family when my mother consented to go.
As children, we must repeat an oath, pledging to never, under any circumstance, visit Dallas, except for funerals and weddings, and then don’t spend your money there; keep it in Cowtown. Amon Carter watched over his sheep, and the Leonard Brothers needed our support.
As a cold Saturday in late December, turned to nighttime, and then late evening. My father grew increasingly worried about his wife’s whereabouts. “How long does it take to fix some damn hair?” He said for the hundredth time. The weatherman on Channel 5 had forcasted a big sleet storm that might hit at any time.
Dinner was a sack of White Castle burgers. My sister went to bed early, and I, in support of my father, sat up watching “The Mummy” on Nightmare Theater. My father was outside in the cold, pacing on the front porch, chain-smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes and cursing Dallas.
Around 10 PM, my father joined me in front of the television as the mummy was killing his final victim with a chokehold; the front door opened, and there stood my mother with a furry gargoyle perched on her head.
The lighting from our Christmas tree cast an eerie glow on her form. Tiny glass ornaments in her hair reflected the red and blue lights, making her an angelic Christmas version of “The Bride of Frankenstien.”
She staggard to the sofa plopped down, and fell over sideways. My father gently lifted her to a sitting position and placed a cushion behind her back. I noticed a small pile of broken hair where her head had landed. She began to weep. There was no consoling her; the more we tried, the louder she wailed.
Uncle said that a jealous competitor had switched his hair spray with a can of spray glue, so the hair-do would be permanent. The good news is they won the hair show, and they got a big trophy and a check.
The following day, mom left the house early. When she returned, her hair was as short as a man’s.
I was sad to see the hair-do go. I thought the tiny ornaments in her hair looked pretty cool. After all, it was Christmas time.
I saw my first 3-D movie in 1955. My cousin Jock and I rode our balloon tire bicycles to the 7th Street Theater in Fort Worth. A ticket was $.25 cents and a coke and popcorn was another $.10 cents, we were set. The cheesy cardboard 3-D glasses were free.
After two cartoons, a message on the screen said “put on your 3-D glasses now!” Man, we were ready. The music was scary, the credits and opening scenes were even scarier. Vincent Price looked about as evil as the devil, and the wax figures looked real, ready to jump through the screen. Neither of us would admit it, but we were scared shitless.
Things started flying around the screen, then into the audience and over our heads. Floating orbs, spears and flying ghost. Old Vincent threw a fiery orb at the front row, and kids ran down the isle screaming, hitting the seats and falling, blind, still wearing their 3-D glasses. It was pandemonium. The manager stopped the film and brought up the house lights. That was it.
We rode our bicycles home still wearing our 3-D glasses and looking oh so cool.
Tex Styles learned the art of grilling at a young age. His father, an expert, medal-winning griller and smoker, proudly and meticulously teaches six-year-old Tex the art of cooking everything from burgers to ribs on his cast-iron Leonard Brothers charcoal grill. The family lineage of grilling over an open flame can be traced back to the British Isles and their ancestral home of Scotland, where a Styles family member cooked meat for Celtic warriors, the King of England, and Mary, Queen of Scots.
When Tex turns eleven, his father conducts a tiki-torch-lighted ceremony in their backyard and passes the sacred grilling tools to his only child. Father Frank, the local priest, attends the party and lays down a righteous blessing on the tools, Tex, and the family grill.
On summer evenings, when young Tex fires up the charcoal, the neighborhood gathers in his backyard to watch the boy genius at work. Once he has entered his Zen-cooking zone, he serves up a better T-bone than Cattlemen’s, and his burgers are known to bring tears to a grown man’s eyes. Around Fort Worth, the word is out that some little kid over on Ryan Ave is a “grilling Jesse.”
Tex receives a bright green Weber grill for his thirteenth birthday and a professional cooking apron with his name embrodried across the front. The Star-Telegram newspaper takes his picture and writes a glowing article that appears in the Sunday food section. Over on Channel 5, Bobbie Wygant mentions him on her television show and sends him a congratulations card. He is now a local celebrity. Dan Jenkins, the hot-shot sports writer at the Telegram, does a piece on Tex for Sports Illustrated, and just like that, young Tex is officially a “big deal.”
When Tex turns sixteen, like his father and grandfather before him, he is inducted into the “Sons Of The Alamo” Masonic Lodge. To become a member, your family tree must include one direct family member who fought and died at the Alamo. Tex’s great-great-great-grandfather was a defender and was killed in the siege. He was also the head cook and griller for the Texian Army and a rowdy drinking buddy of Jim Bowie and Colonel Travis.
New members must speak before the lodge elders, recounting what they know of the siege from their family’s point of history. Since childhood, Tex had heard this family story a hundred times and can repeat it word for word, but tonight, he is drawing a blank on a few of the critical details and decides to wing it a bit. In the mind of a sixteen-year-old, his modernized recount of the battle makes perfect sense.
He stands in front of the assembled elders, leans into the microphone, and begins; “In late 1835, my great-great-great-grandfather, Angus Styles, traveled from the Smokey mountains of Tennessee to the dangerous plains of Texas with David Crockett and his band of long-rifle toting buckskin-clad rabble-rousers. Angus was in the dog-house with his wife most of the time, so he figured a year or two in the wilds of Texas would smooth everything out with the Mrs.
Before immigrating to America, Angus was the chief griller and top dog chef for the Duke and Duchess of Edinburg over there in Europe. David Crockett knew Angus was a master griller and wanted him to travel with his men so they would eat well. Crockett and the men killed the meat, and Angus grilled it to perfection.
Arriving in Texas, Crockett tells Angus they making a stop-over for a few days at a place called the Alamo mission. A buddy of his needs some help to fight off a few Mexican soldiers; it shouldn’t take more than two days, tops.
Once at the Alamo, Angus realizes that Crockett was wrong in his evaluation. The rag-tag Army behind the walls would be no match for the thousands of Mexican soldiers sitting on a riverbank a few hundred yards away eating tortilla wraps and polishing their long bayonets. Mariachi music floating on the breeze gave the scene a weird party-like atmosphere.
Angus locates and converts an old adobe oven to a smoker griller and gets to work on some chow for the Texians. Brisket, ribs, and sausage, along with his secret sauce, will be on the supper menu.
A young pioneer woman from the northern part of Texas is there with her father, a volunteer. Veronica Baird is busy baking bread and cinnamon rolls in another adobe oven and lends Angus a hand stoking his fire. A big German fellow, Gustav Shiner, wonders over and offers Angus a mug of his homebrew beer. It’s looking like the Army will eat and drink well tonight.
A chilly March wind is blowing towards the Mexican Army camp, and the troops are smelling the delightful aroma of cooking meat and baking bread. Having marched 1500 miles with little food, they are famished, and the wafting perfume is making them salivate like an old hound dog.
General Santa Anna and his officers are also smelling the same heavenly aroma and, having not much to eat in the past few days, scheme to get their hands on that meat and bread. Santa Anna sends a white flag rider with a note to the gates of the Alamo.
Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by a hundred plus fighters, Travis reads the letter, ” Dear Sirs and Scurrilous Rebels, on behalf of our large and overpowering Mexican Army and of course, myself, General Santa Anna, we would be willing to offer you a general surrender of sorts if you would share your delicious meat and bread with my troops. Looking forward to a good meal. Yours until death, General Santa Anna.”
The men, in unison, yell, “hell no,” we are not sharing our chow. Being a bit of a smart-ass, Travis then orders two 20 pound cannons to fire a rebuke into the Mexican camp.
The first cannonball destroys the Mexicans chuck wagon and what beans and flour the troops have left. The second cannonball blows up the cantina wagon, vaporizing numerous cases of tequila and wine. Now the officers and troops have no food and no hooch. Santa Anna is as mad as a rabid raccoon and screams, “that’s it boys, we are taking the mission pronto.”
The battle started that evening, and as we all know, it didn’t turn out well for the Texians. Veronica Baird survived the massacre and said that Angus Styles and Gustav Shiner fought off the advancing soldiers with carving knives, a keg tap, and her sizeable wooden baker’s Peel. They fought to their death.
As the women and children of the Alamo were escorted out of the mission, Veronica Baird spots Santa Anna, sitting on his black horse, about to take a bite from one of her Cinnamon rolls. She chunks a rock and knocks it out of his hand. His Great Dane dog, General Perro gobbles it down before it hits the ground. Sweet revenge.
She later wrote a book about the battle, and it sold pretty well here in Texas. Not only is the Alamo our sacred national treasure, but it was also the first BBQ joint in our state of Texas. Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the story of my grandfather Angus dying at the Alamo.” And with that, Tex steps down and takes a seat next to his stunned father.
Pictured here is my 17th cousin, Carmalita “Cookie” Zevon. In Texas, if we are unsure of our relations, everyone becomes a cousin. It’s a big state with a small gene pool.
In the fall of 1958, the first beatnik-style coffee house opened its door in Fort Worth Texas. Calling itself, “The Cellar,” I can assure you that Fort Worth did not welcome its presence or the caliber of inhabitants it attracted. Cousin Carmalita, who preferred the name Cookie, was a perfect fit and secured a gig as the first waitress at the new establishment.
Being 8 years younger, I and the other cousins had limited interaction during her teenage years, but I know from the sordid family stories and the “almost out of earshot whispers” that she was a real hellion of a girl.
Immersing herself in books by Kerouac and Ginsberg that glorified the new lifestyle created by the “beat generation,” Cookie began dressing in black tight-fitting clothing.
Waist-length black hair and a resemblance to a young Ava Gardner didn’t endear her to the Sandra Dee girls club at school, which resulted in a cliquish form of petulant bullying, so Cookie dropped out of Paschal High School at sixteen to live in sin with her next to worthless hoodlum boyfriend; a motorcycle riding teenage hubcap stealing thief from the north side of town. This decision resulted in her instant banishment from the family.
Polled by a phone-in family vote, she was christened the “little trollop.” Her name was not to be spoken at gatherings, and her mother requested all photographs containing images of Cookie be returned to her for proper disposal by fire. Her father, unable to watch her sweet sixteen birthday present, a Ford Fairlane convertible sit abandoned in his driveway, sold it to Frank Kent for next to nothing. The rebellious type was not tolerated well in the 1950s, especially in Texas, and our extended family.
The Cellar grew in popularity and crowds of the literary unwashed and self-appointed poets made it their rightious digs. High octane coffee and bad poetry create a tolerated misery for the sake of being cool.
Cookie grew tired of the bland poetry readings from ancient books and tried her hand at writing. Engulfed in her rebellion, and possessing a heart full of childish resentment, it didn’t take long for her to dish on everyone and everything she felt had “done her wrong.” Her parents were the main course in her cauldron of teenage hate. She petitioned the club owner to let her perform a personal poem about her life, and he agreed.
Saturday evening is reserved for the serious night dwelling “hip beats.” They convene and hold literary court to any who will listen. Mixed groups of the hairy educated gather around small tables arguing about poetry, politics, sex and the meaning of life. Old Crow adds the extra kick to the java. An occasional strange cigarette makes the rounds.
Cookie senses the time right and takes the stage cradling a cardboard box under her left arm and a large pair of sewing shears in her right hand. She sets the box on the floor next to a tall stool. Tears stream from her sad eyes, forming dark streams of melting mascara onto her peach pale cheeks. A tinsel thin string of snot drips from her left nostril resting on her upper lip catches the spotlight, bathing her face an ethereal glow. She gags a few times, composes herself and begins her poem.
Retrieving her favorite childhood doll baby from the box, she places the doll on the stool, produces a small meat-cleaver and beheads the poor toy. A gasp erupts from the crowd. Earlier, for maximum effect, she filled the doll’s plastic head with Heinz Ketchup and potted ham to simulate blood and brains. When the doll’s head is guillotined and bounces onto the table nearest the stage, the ketchup splattered patrons recoil in horror. A beautiful 8×10 glossy photo of her parents is pulled from the box and cut to shreds with the sewing shears. She produces a Girl Scout uniform and rips it to pieces, throwing the all American remnants of the uniform into the audience.
Cookie leans into the microphone, takes a drag from a Pall Mall, and in a low growl says ” I never liked dolls or toys, but you made me treat the little shits like real people. I fed them imaginary food, bathed them in imaginary water, changed their tiny poopless diapers, and dressed them in stupid clothes, and for that I hate you and I cut my hair.” With that statement, she grabs a chunk of her beautiful lady Godiva length hair and removes a large portion with the sewing shears. She continues ” I didn’t want to be a Bluebird, but no, I had to be like the other girls on our street, you know I don’t like the color blue, and for that, I hate you and I cut my hair.” Whack, another large section falls to the stage. ” you hate my boyfriend because he is a bad boy, and he is all that, but I love him and want to spend my life on the back of his ratty-ass motorcycle holding a nursing baby in each arm as we travel west to find the meaning of life.” She then whacks the left side of her hair to within inches of her scalp. The audience is on the verge of bolting, fearing her next move may be severing an artery and expiring in front of them. A voice from the back of the room yells “this chick is crazy.”
Cookie ends her act and exits the stage leaving a pile of black hair mixed with ketchup and photo paper. The crowd of poets and hip cats give her a lukewarm reception. This performance was too unhinged for the normally unshakable.
That performance at the Cellar that night was the debut of what would come to be known as “Performance Art.” Carmalita Cookie Zevon performed once more before she and her boyfriend and a nursing baby rode west on a ratty-ass motorcycle to find the meaning of life. We can assume they found something.
“Fun With Dick and Jane” was okay for starters and sissies, but I and my buddies craved the real Avant-garde children’s books like the one above. We didn’t own an Indian tent, a pedal car, or a Cocker Spaniel. We had BB guns, sharp knives, and German Shepherds, so our reading material was a bit more on the street smart side.
The neighborhood gang, around the 5th grade, discovered Mickey Spillane and True Crime while looking through our Daddy’s sock drawer; which, in turn, had an adverse effect on a few of the boys during their teenage years. Booger and Georgie wound up at the “Dope Farm” and Billy Roy did time for robbery of a Dime Store with a Mattel Fanner 50 cap gun. Being a child in the 1950s was a hell of a lot more fun than now.
A personal recount of my childhood Christmas memories.
Riding a ceiling-mounted “Rocket Train” to nowhere around the basement of a department store doesn’t seem like a Christmas thing, but that’s what thousands of other Texas kids and I did every year in the 1950s.
Leonard Brothers Department Store occupied two square blocks of downtown Fort Worth real estate and was known as the Southwest’s Macy’s. They offered everything the big shot stores in the East carried, and then, hundreds of items no retailer in their right mind would consider.
If you had a mind to, one could purchase a full-length mink coat with optional mink mittens, the latest women’s high-fashion clothing line from Paris France, an Italian cut-crystal vile of Elizabeth Taylors spit, James Dean’s signature hair tonic, Rock Hudson’s autographed wedding photos, a housebroken Llama, an aluminum fishing boat and motor, a new car, a pole barn, a nice two-story craftsman home “build it yourself kit” delivered to your lot, chickens, barb wire, hay, horses and cows, a 30-30 Winchester rifle, a 40 caliber autographed General George Custer Colt pistol, a bottle of good hootch and a Ford tractor. That’s about as Texas as it gets.
The Christmas season in downtown Fort Worth was internationally recognized for its innovative and wonderous decorations. The righteous city fathers figured the best way to out-do Dallas, a full-time effort, was to line every building with white lights from top to bottom and install large glowing decorations on every lamp pole, street light, and building façade available. If that didn’t make you “ooooh and ahhhh,” then you needed to go home and hide in a closet.
A week, or so, after Thanksgiving, my parents would take my sister and me downtown to see the decorations and visit the Leonard Brothers Department Store. Santa just happened to be in their basement taking advanced verbal orders from every crumb cruncher that could climb the stairs and plop on his lap.
My sister, in between screams and crying fits, always asked for the latest doll. She was scared senseless of “HO-HO,” but she somehow managed to spit out her order. Like clockwork, every year, I asked for a Daisy BB Gun with a year’s supply of stainless silver ammo ( for killing werewolves), a full-size Elliot Ness operable Thompson Sub Machine Gun, or an Army surplus Bazooka with real rockets and a long, razor-sharp Bowie knife encased in a fringed leather holster. It was a 1950s boy thing; weapons were what we longed for. How else could we defeat Santa Anna at the Alamo or win World War II, again? Our neighborhood may have sported the best-supplied “kid army” on the planet, and jolly old Santa was our secret arms dealer; parents non-the wiser. I finally got the BB Gun, but Santy was wise enough to not bring the other request.
Walking down the stairs to the store’s basement was the thrill I waited for all year. There, hanging above my head, was the beautiful red and silver tinseled sign, “Toy Land,” kid nirvana, and the Holy Grail all in one room. The smell of burned popcorn and stale chocolate candy wafted up the stairs, and I could hear the cheesy Christmas choir music and the sound the Rocket Train made as it glided along the ceiling-mounted rails. I almost pissed my jeans.
Hundreds, if not thousands of parents jostled down isles of toys, pushing, grabbing, snarling like a pack of wild dogs fighting for that last toy; the holiday spirit and common courtesy was alive and well. The queue of kids for the Rocket Train snaked through the basement like a soup line.
There, sitting on his mini-mountain top perch, sat old red-suited Santa Claus and his elfin apprentices, herding kids to his lap at break-neck speed. Each child got about fifteen-seconds, a black and white photograph, and then it was off the lap and down the steps. Kids were fast in those days; we memorized and practiced our list weeks before our visit for maximum impact. “Ho-Ho” had better be writing this stuff down. Kids don’t forget, squat.
Two Santa visits, four Rocket Train rides, and three popcorn bags later, our family unit departed Leonard’s for the new and improved “Leonard’s Christmas Tree Land,” located across the street from the main building. Thanks to the demolition of several winos infested abandoned buildings, the new lot was now the size of Rhode Island and held enough trees for every person and their dog in Texas.
Thousands, if not millions of fresh-cut trees awaited our choosing. Father, always the cheapskate, chose a sensible tree; not too big, not too small, yet full and fluffy with a lovely piney aroma. My sister and I pointed and danced like fools for the “pink flocked” tree in the tent, that cost the equivalent of a week’s salary. My parents enjoyed our cute antics. The sensible tree was secured to the top of our Nash Rambler station wagon, and we are homeward bound.
Pulling into our driveway, it was impossible to miss our neighbors extravagant holiday display. We had been away from home for 6 hours and returned to a full-blown holiday extravaganza that made our modest home look like a tobacco road share-croppers shack.
Our next-door neighbors, Mr. Mister and Mrs. Mister were the neighborhood gossip fodder. The couple moved from Southern California for his job. He, an aircraft-design engineer, and she, a former gopher girl at Paramount Studios. The Misters reeked new-found money and didn’t mind flaunting it. They drove tiny Italian sports cars and hired a guy to mow their lawn. His wife, Mrs. Mister, always had a Pall Mall ciggie in one hand and a frosty cocktail in the other. Father said she looked like a pretty Hollywood lady named Jane Mansfield, but Mother said she resembled a “gimlet-assed dime-store chippy.” I got the impression that the Misters were quite popular in the neighborhood.
Their Christmas display was pure Cecil B. DeMille. A life-size plywood sleigh, with Santa and his reindeer, covered the Mister’s roof, and 20 or more automated Elves and various holiday characters greeted passersby. Twinkling lights covered every bush and plant in the yard, and a large machine spat out thousands of bubbles that floated through the neighborhood. This was far more than Fort Worth was ready for.
The kill-shot was their enormous picture window that showcased a ceiling-high blue flocked tree bathed in color-changing lights. There, framed in the glow of their yuletide decor, sat Mr. and Mrs. Mister with their two poodles, Fred and Ginger, perched on their expensive modern sofa, sipping vermouth martinis like Hollywood royalty. This display of pompacious decadence didn’t go unnoticed by my parents.
Father hauled our puny tree into the living room and began unpacking lights for the decorating that would happen tomorrow evening. Mother hurried my sister and me off to bed. Visions of spying Elves, sugar plum pudding, and dangerous weapons danced in my head; Christmas was upon us.
Sometime after 10 PM, Father got hungry. Searching for sandwich fixings in the kitchen, he found a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. Then he found a fresh half gallon of Egg-Nog, which of course, he enjoyed with the bourbon. While searching for bread to make the ham sandwich, he found two “Lux Laundry Soap Flake” boxes, with a dish-towel in each one. Then by chance, he discovered the food coloring. This gave him an idea for our sad little tree.
I awoke in a start. The sun was shining in my face, which meant I was late for school. I ran into the living room and was stopped in my tracks.
Our formally green tree was now flocked in thick pink snow, as were the curtains, the fireplace mantel, two chairs, the coffee table, and my father, who lay on the couch, passed out, with a half-eaten ham sandwich on his chest. My Mother sat a few feet away, sipping her coffee and smoking a Winston; my Louisville slugger lay on her lap. I was reluctant to approach her, but I had to know.
I timidly put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Mom, is Dad going to be alright?” She took a sip of coffee and a drag from her ciggie and said, “well, for right now, he will be, but after he wakes up, who knows.”